Lipstick and that damned pig

In a recent editorial, Stereophile columnist Art Dudley threw a grenade into the lobby of audio’s high-end. He followed up with a couple of bazooka rounds. After backing his tank over the debris a couple of times and blasting a few stragglers that seemed to have escaped, he then set the whole thing on fire. The only thing missing was a fiddle.

It’s time to call bullshit on five-figure interconnects and four-figure isolation cones. It’s time to call bullshit on $30,000 amplifiers that would be priced to sell for $10,000, tops, if not for their massive, jewelry-like casework. The compulsion to make the best of anything is noble, but the inclination to rely overmuch on the brute force of excess and opulence in doing so is sloppy. And while I understand that the imperilment of the middle-class consumer base forces some start-up companies to aim up-market in order to survive—see JA’s essay on this subject—I feel that the inability of so many present-day high-end audio manufacturers to offer outstanding performance for less than astronomical prices does not speak terribly well of their engineering talents.

Look, I’m not unsympathetic — I just think it’s a little odd coming from Stereophile. The only way this could have been more jarring would have been to see this piece in The Absolute Sound. Not to say that Stereophile doesn’t necessarily cover the “low-end”, but it certainly doesn’t make a particular habit of it — Steven Mejias’ rather recent offering of “The Entry Level” notwithstanding. Sorry, if I’m looking for affordable-but-great, there’s a host of other places I’d turn to first. Just saying.

So, I guess I’m unclear as to what Art’s goal is. Yes, there’s some crazy ass shit going on in audio’s high-end. And yes, there’s a reason for some of it — there’s a shit-ton of disposable income floating around in the offshore accounts of the 1%. If you want to play at that level, you need bragging-rights gear — make it and they will come. But how is this a surprise — to anyone? I mean, seriously. How?

Look, there’s no one in their right mind that truly believes that those $25,000 speaker cables are anything other than insanely overpriced. It almost doesn’t matter if they’re the best that have ever been made — the have to be. It’s not interesting if they’re amazing. In fact, those cables are only interesting if and when (more when than if) they’re bettered by wire that’s cheaper. What I find amazing is that Stereophile is only now finding its outrage. Dude, where have you been?

Personally, I think this race-to-the-top is what’s “killing the hi-fi biz”, another myth that covers many sins. But for a hi-fi company that exclusively chases the very same customers they did 40 years ago, simply tracking them as they move up the economic brackets, this becomes a valid complaint. Heaven forbid those boomers die, because if they do, that company — and a lot of companies in similar straits — are going to implode.

Alright, so aside from the unbelievably late-arrival to the party, you have to give credit where it’s due. I’d like to believe that seeing this slam in a high-end mag, the “screw value — I can charge whatever I want” mentality puts many manufacturers on notice. Interestingly, I’m already starting to see reactionary messaging to Dudley’s warning shot coming from audio companies. Assuming the rally cry is carried forward, it should make the next RMAF and CES a bit more interesting.

Speaking of carrying it forward ….

I just saw John Darko’s response to the editorial on his blog, Digital Audio Review. Darko’s an interesting character, and has published on 6moons, TONEAudio and probably a few others. I like his site — very slick, unlike this one — and I’ve enjoyed watching it develop over the last year or so. Now, as a reviewer who actually seems to specialize in “more affordable” audio, it’s hardly a surprise to read Darko echoing The Julia Rule in his approach to quality and value in the audio market. I admire his stance to review only that which he, personally, can afford to buy. But Darko stops short of outright calling bullshit on the value of the gear hitting the market.

I don’t see why. I say that there must be an accounting. If a vendor wants to sell a pair of speakers for $250,000, my knee-jerk reaction is to call bullshit. How you can possibly justify that pricing? Exotic parts? Insane labor? Fine — but how does any of that impact its performance? Because I’m betting that I could spend that same money on several systems that will sound as good or better — and still leave money left over for that new BMW. I’m unmoved by vintage bits, exotics, or Herculean efforts. It’s all irrelevant if the product isn’t substantively better because of it.

Just because a would-be manufacturer can quantify the costs of parts, labor and “everything else” to bring an idea to market — that by itself doesn’t make it a product. Just because you can build a thing doesn’t mean that it’s worth doing it or, more relevantly, that anyone should give a damn about it. Unless all that “extra crap” can differentiate it on performance from products that cost less (and in some cases, much less), then it is, at best, a distraction and the wise consumer should, rightfully, sneer and take a pass.

I think this is the fine point of Dudley’s sword — bling alone doesn’t add value. Pricing it dearly doesn’t make it valuable. It’s performance that adds value, and performance alone — and excellence in engineering is where that’s going to come from.

Time to get to work.